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What does dead as a door nail mean?
Is it used in set phrases, or is it normally used in any context?

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up vote 7 down vote accepted

Dead as a doornail is one of the many idiomatic similes used for emphasis (to intensify the adjective). Thus, it simply means dead, very dead, quite dead, certainly dead, etc. It can be used figuratively or literally in any context.

Another simile that comes to mind is poor as a church mouse, which simply means dirt poor, very poor, flat broke, etc.

I'm sure Cambridge and Longman still publish compendiums of English similes, proverbs and idioms. They're fun to peruse.

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It would not be right to discuss this idiom without reference to this quote from the opening of Dickens's A Christmas Carol:

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

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Dickens was paid by the word, and so more than one of his books opens with this kind of waffle. Fortunately for his fans, he was also very, very good at it. – user867 Jun 11 '13 at 4:39

From the New Oxford American Dictionary:

doornail (noun): a stud set in a door for strength or as an ornament.

(as) dead as a doornail: quite dead.

Note that it is “doornail” with no space.

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Also note that, in this context, "quite" means "completely", as opposed to "to some extent" :-) – psmears Feb 17 '11 at 20:06
@psmears: I wasn't aware that there were degrees of deadness :-) – adj7388 Feb 17 '11 at 20:11
@adj7388, "There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do." – Peter Taylor Feb 17 '11 at 20:50
"What's that?" "Go through his clothes and look for loose change." – Marthaª Feb 17 '11 at 21:11
@adj7388: You should have stood your ground! Of course there are degrees of deadness - ranging from life in The (fairly) Dead Sea to Monty Python's (totally) Dead Parrot – FumbleFingers Dec 30 '11 at 16:34

protected by RegDwigнt Dec 30 '11 at 17:31

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